[-back to menu for this book-]
THE CHESHIRE CHEESE
I HAD been kept late in Fleet Street on Saturday, and at a little before
seven I woke to the fact that it was near the dinner hour, that I was in the
clothes I had worn all day, that I was brain-weary and tired, and not energetic.
I should be late for dinner if I went home, half across the width of London; I
could not well dine at a club without evening clothes, and a smart restaurant
was equally out of the question, for I felt, being in the state of humiliation
which weariness and London grime bring one to, that I could not have held my own
as to the choice of a table or the ordering of a dinner against even the least
determined maitre d’hôtel.
The easiest way was to dine at one of the Fleet Street hostelries, and I ran such of them as I know over in my mind. How they have changed since Herrick rang them into rhyme! Then they were the Sun, the Dog, the Triple Tun. Now they are the Rainbow, the Cock, Anderton’s, the Cheshire Cheese, and a host more. It was a pudding day at the Cheshire [-10-] Cheese, not the crowded day, which is Wednesday, but a day on which I was sure to get a seat in the lower room and be able to eat my meal in comfort and content; and that finally decided me in favour of the hostelry in Wine Office Court.
It is not a cheerful thoroughfare that leads up to the Cheshire Cheese. It is a narrow and dark passage, and the squat little door of the tavern itself is not inviting, for it is reminiscent of a country public-house. It is not until one is through the sawdusted passage and into the lower room that one is in warmth and comfort.
I was a little late. The man who loves the Cheshire Cheese pudding is in his place at table a few minutes before the pudding is brought in at 6.30 P.M., a surging billow of creamy white bulging out of a great brown bowl, and then when the host begins to carve—and there is a certain amount of solemnity about the opening of this great pudding—the early guest gets the best helping. By a quarter-past seven, when I made my entry, the pudding had sunk down into the depths of the bowl.
Most of the tables were full, but the long table, at the head of which Dr. Johnson is alleged to have sat with Goldsmith at his left hand, had some vacant places, and I took one of them. “Pudding?” said the head waiter. I assented, and Mr. Moore, the host, a dapper gentleman, with a wealth of dark hair and a dark moustache, who had been chatting to a clean-shaven young gentleman who had the seat opposite to mine, moved to the great bowl to [-11-] give me my helping, for no one but the host touches the sacred pudding. The clean-shaven young gentleman relapsed into a newspaper, and while I waited the few seconds before the brown mixture of lark and kidney and oyster and steak was put before me I looked round at my neighbours. A gentleman, bald of head and with white whiskers, who was addressed as “Doctor,” sat in the great lexicographer’s seat, and talking to him was a bearded gentleman whom I put down at once as a press-man, a sub-editor probably. The only other guest at our table was a good-looking, middle-aged man in clothes that had the gloss of newness on them, a flannel shirt, a white collar, and a gaudy tie. He had finished his meal, was evidently contented with the world, and there was a conversational glint in his eye when he caught mine that made me look away at once; for I was hungry and downcast and not inclined for cheerful converse until I had eaten and drunk.
“Pudding, sir,” and the head waiter put the savoury mass before me; “and what else? “ I ordered a pint of beer and stewed cheese. I ate my pudding, and being told that the cheese was not ready, ate a “follow” afterwards, for there is no limit to the amount of pudding allowed, and some of the “followers,” as the host of the tavern calls them, have been known to have half a dozen helpings; and then the brown and fizzling cheese in its little tin tray, with a triangle of toast on either side, was put before me. The cheese, mixed with mustard and neatly spread on the toast, according to custom, [-12-] eaten, the last drops of the bitter beer poured from the pewter tankard into the long glass which is supposed to give brilliancy to the malt liquor; and then, feeling a man again, I looked across at the flannel-shirted gentleman who had been smoking a pipe placidly, with a look which meant “Come on.”
The ripple of conversation broke at once. He had been out in Australia for fifteen years, went out there as a mere lad, and to-day was his first day in town after his return. He had been used in past times to come to the Cheshire Cheese for his mid-day meal, and the first place he had sought out when he came to London was the old hostelry. He missed the old waiters, he said, but otherwise the place was much the same and as homely as ever.
I recognised in the attraction that had brought this wanderer from the antipodes to the old- fashioned tavern, first of all places, the same force that had made me, the blasé man about town, unconsciously decide to dine there in preference to any other Fleet Street hostelry—its homeliness. The old-fashioned windows with their wire blinds, the sawdusted floor, the long clay pipes on the window-sill; the heirloom portrait of Henry Todd, waiter; the “greybeard” and leatherjack on their brackets (both gifts from Mr. Seymour Lucas the artist) ; the piles of black-handled knives, the willow-pattern plates and dishes ; the curious stand in the centre of the floor for umbrellas; the great old-fashioned grate with a brass kettle singing merrily on it; the pile of Whitaker’s almanacks putting a touch of [-13-] colour into a dark corner; Samuel Johnson’s portrait over his favourite seat, and a host of prints, relating to the great man, on the walls the high partitions, one particular square pew being shielded by a green baize curtain; the simple napery; the ruin of the great pudding on its little table; all carried one back through the early Victorian times to those dimmer periods when even coffee-houses were unknown, and every man took his ease at his inn.
The floodgates of the friendly stranger’s speech once unloosed, he told me of his life in Australia, and the hard times he had had, and how matters had come so far right that he was able to come home to England and enjoy himself for six months; and the clean-shaven young gentleman—he was going on later to assist in an entertainment to the poor of Houndsditch, he told us—emerged from his newspaper, and we all found a good deal to say. Nothing would satisfy the returned wanderer but that he must be allowed to ask us to join him in drinking a bowl of the Cheshire Cheese punch, and Mr. Moore, the host, must make one of the party. The other guests— most of them, I should think, connected in some way or other with the Fourth Estate—had gradually drifted away, and Mr. Moore, who had been going from table to table, came and sat down. “No celebrities here to-night, Mr. Moore,” I said somewhat reproachfully, and he admitted the soft impeachment, but Irish-wise told us of the great men of the present day that we had missed by not dining at the Cheese on any night but the present one. Every journalist of fame, [-14-] every editor, has eaten within the walls of the old hostelry, and there is no judge that sits on the bench who has not taken some of his first dinners as a barrister in the little house up Wine Office Court.
The hot punch was brought in in one of the china bowls, of which there are three or four in a little corner cupboard in the old-fashioned bar across the passage, and an old silver ladle to serve it with; and the talk ranged back from the great men of the present day to those of the past. Thackeray knew the “Cheese” well; Dickens used to come in his early days and tell the present host’s mother all his troubles, and so we got back to Goldsmith and Johnson, the latter of whom is the especial patron saint of the hostelry, for when he lived in Gough Square and Bolt Court the Cheshire Cheese is said to have been his nightly resort.
The punch ended, the time came for the reckoning. Of old the head waiters were all clean-shaven, like Henry Todd, whose portrait hangs aloft, and all the reckoning was done by word of mouth. But the present head waiter has introduced innovations; he wears a moustache, and makes out his bills on paper. This was mine—Ye rump steak pudding, 2s.; vegetables, 2d.; cheese, 4d.; beer, 5d.; total, 2s. 11d.